The fall of the Roman Empire in 476 marked the end of the Ancient world and the start of the Middle Ages. When talking about the fall of the Roman Empire, generally it is referred to the fall of the city of Rome in 476, because most of the west was already lost by the middle of the fifth century. The fall of the empire had a huge impact on the world. However the decline and the fall was attributed only to the west, while the east, eventually called Byzantine, continued to exist for many more centuries with a unique Roman identity.
The Split of Western and Eastern Roman Empire
The empire extended from the British Isle to Mesopotamia, the Tigris and Euphrates River to North Africa. The size became a huge problem for the government, and a solution was needed fast. The emperor Diocletian divided the territory in two, one with a capital in Rome and one with a capital in Nicomedia. Later the Emperor Constantine, who again united the territory, moved the capital from Rome to the city of Byzantine, which he named Constantinople. Constantinople became Nova Roma or New Rome, replacing it as an economical and cultural center. The empire was divided and united several times. The Emperor Theodosius I (379-395) was the last emperor to rule over a united Roman Empire. After his death in 395 the empire was divided for the last time.
The size of the Roman Empire made the governing difficult, but the ineffective leadership made the problem even bigger. Civil wars pushed the empire in a chaos, and more than twenty men took the throne in 75 years. The Praetorian Guard assassinated and installed new emperors at will, even auctioned the spot once. The Roman Senate was very corrupted and incompetent to deal with the situations. Another problem was the communication. Even with their excellent road system, they could not communicate quickly and effectively to manage the huge territory. The empire struggled to recruit enough troops and resources to defend against local rebellions and outside attacks. The emperors had to hire foreign mercenaries filling the rank of the legions with barbarians. Even though the barbarians proved to be fierce warriors, they had no loyalty to the empire, often turning against their Roman employers.
Most of the funds were spent in the military and in defense, so technological advancement slowed down. All this led to financial crises. The constant overspending had lightened the empires’ coffers. Taxation and inflation had widened the gap between the rich and the poor. Rome’s economy was mostly dependent on slaves. The military campaigns usually provided slaves, but when the expansion stopped, the supply of slaves began to dry out, leading to a labor deficit. The trade was also disrupted in the 5th century. The Vandals conquered North Africa and attacked merchant ships on the Mediterranean as pirates. Christianity became the state religion after centuries of persecution. This eroded the traditional Roman value system. The religion shifted the focus from the glory of the Empire and onto a sole deity. The church leaders took a role in the political affairs, making governing even more complicated.
External factors, the Goths and Alaric
The empire became very vulnerable to attacks especially on the Danube-Rhine border. The presence of barbarians along the northern border was nothing new. The army had met with them many times since the time of Julius Caesar. Many of the barbarians, especially the Goths, were drawn to the empire’s great wealth and were seeking better life. During the reign of the Eastern Roman Emperor Valens (364-378), the Thervingi Goths showed on the Danube-Rhine border, asking for permission to settle. The Goths were threatened by the Huns, and needed an urgent response. However the Emperor Valens delayed the answer, so the Goths crossed the river without permission and war soon started, which lasted for 5 years. The emperor could not provide sufficient food and housing for the Goths. The corruption and extortion by some of the Roman commanders made the Goths more impatient. Valens asked for help from the west, but didn’t receive it. At the Battle of Adrianople, the emperor was killed together with two-thirds of his army.
The Goths remain on Roman soil as allies of the Roman army. However a Goth by the name of Alaric, trained in the Roman army and a former commander rose up against Rome. He demanded land on the Balkan from the western emperor. Again the response was delayed, so Alaric asked for grain for his people and for their recognition as citizens of the empire, but the emperor Honorius refused. Alaric gathered a well-organized army and crossed the Alps into Italy. In 410 Alaric entered and completely sacked the city. Soon after this, he died. The Empire was devastated by Burgundians, Angles, Saxons, Lombards and Magyars. By 475 Spain, Britain and most of Gaul had been lost to various Germanic peoples. In 475 the commander Orestes replaced the western emperor Julius Nepos and placed his son Romulus Augustulus as emperor. One year later, in 476, the Germanic chieftain Odoacer deposed the last Roman emperor of the west, Romulus Augustulus. Although Odoacer continued to rule as King of Italy and as client of the eastern roman emperor Zeno, this marked the end of the Western Roman Empire.